Pirke Avot, verse five: women

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Ah, now we’re in trouble.

Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem said:—Let thy house be opened wide, and let the poor be thy household, and talk not overmuch with a woman.

He said it: in the case of his own wife, much more in the case of his companion’s wife.

Hence the Wise have said:—Everyone that talketh much with a woman causes evil to himself, and desists from words of Torah, and his end is he inherits Gehinnom.

Um, well. Er. No, YHB is not really going to defend this. I mean, you could say that by overmuch, we’re talking about gossip and idle chat, but then why would it be worse to do so with a woman? No, Jose is speaking from misogyny, and the (allegedly) Wise are speaking from misogyny as well, and that kind of talk did actual harm to actual women (and men, too) throughout generations of our people. Important to keep that in mind and address it.

Before I talk about that in more detail, or rather, before I talk out my ass about that in more detail, because, really, YHB knowing anything about that stuff, not so much, but before I do a whole post about the misogyny in this verse, I’d like to look a bit at the place of this statement in the saying of Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem.

It seems like a terrible triple just from a rhetorical point of view, doesn’t it? I mean, the first is passive (not grammatically, but figuratively), the second is poetic, the third is negative. They don’t seem to go together at all.

So. Thinking about these tenets as having to do with the running of the house and the household, can we come up with a connector that makes it a better triple, more meaningful, without having to just push the whole thing to the side? This is my idea, which I’ve only had after typing that last sentence, so I’m not sure if it holds up at all: look at Jose (ben Johanan of Jerusalem) as showing, by reverse, the Bad Household. What makes a Household bad? Closed doors (to the poor, the community, the sages), exclusion of the poor (or treatment of the poor as unworthy to be of the household), and ... talk with women. This is starting to look (to me) like a kind of stereotype of a certain kind of aristocratic lifestyle. Gated community. Sneering at the help. And flirtatiousness or social liberty. That’s the kind of thing that is a Bad Household, and Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem is warning against that.

In that light, it is obvious that just as one should sometimes close the door, just as one should sometimes treat one’s own children differently than the poor who you take in, so should you sometimes talk with women. The warning is against a particular kind of idle, selfish and arrogant life, and expressed in wild overstatements to indicate how much we should eschew that life. Plausible?

Having got so far, let’s go on to the last bit, and the inserted chorus of the wise, in yet another note.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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